Mumbai’s Airport Gets Upgraded to First Class

How a gateway to India was built on a wickedly complex site.

Chhatrapati Shivaji International Terminal just prior to completion. Photo by Robert Polidori.

For years, Mumbai’s airport had languished with limited and obsolete facilities, even while the city itself rose to prominence as a global capital of business and entertainment. In 2006, a public-private partnership was formed to allow the airport to begin a broad program of modernization. SOM’s integrated team of architects, engineers, and airport planners was hired take on the challenge.

Informal settlements ring the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport perimeter, leaving no easy solutions for expansion. Packed within 1,400 acres—roughly a quarter of the size of airports in Delhi and Hyderabad—CSIA’s land constraints are extreme by any standard. Photo by Robert Polidori.

One of the most acute needs was to triple the capacity of the airport’s aged international terminal. However, the expansion had to take place on a tightly constrained and difficult site — surrounded by informal settlements, an overflowing river, and immovable historical monuments. The project team needed to find room for a larger terminal with 32 wide-body gates, associated aprons, and taxi lanes, as well as remote aircraft parking and other facilities. What’s more, the new terminal needed to be built while keeping the existing airport in operation.

To accomplish this, SOM developed a phased construction schedule, progressively removing the old terminal to make way for the new. The distinctive “X”-shaped plan for the new building is a response to practical constraints: it spreads the gate concourses wide to maximize aircraft gates, and pinches them at the center to make room for a historic settlement on one side and the Mithi River on the other. The relatively narrow center of the X houses the extensive new retail and dining facilities, as well as the massive baggage handling system.

A quick trip through the evolution of the site.

Most airports place the separate international and domestic retail areas side-by-side. Instead, the team developed a unique multistory arrangement, with international service above domestic service. This allows the airport to operate the concourses to serve either domestic or international flights, depending on demand — an unconventional and efficient solution that saved thousands of square meters of construction.

Moving the terminal to the north and pinching in the headhouse allowed for an expanded number of gates, and increased airside space for planes to taxi. Image © SOM

Demolition of the existing terminal’s western end began in 2009, making way for the new structure’s southwest pier. Soon after, the central road leading to the old terminal was cleared to initiate construction on a new central headhouse. During these first two construction phases, all operations were condensed into remaining sections of the original building. Once these main components of the new Terminal 2 were completed and fully operational, the old terminal’s southeast end could finally be replaced with a new, second pier. SOM’s carefully planned schedule allowed for these overlapping sequences of leveling and building to be carried out without interruptions to service.

Left: A portion of the original terminal intersects partially completed sections of the new terminal’s southwest pier. Photo courtesy of MIAL. Right: A construction staging area sits between the old central roadway and an active airfield. Photo by Robert Polidori.

Construction phasing must always accommodate unexpected challenges, but very little could have prepared the project team for navigating one surprisingly contested part of the plan. Years prior to the development of a new Terminal 2, a coalition of local political leaders had worked to install an equestrian statue of the Mumbai airport’s namesake, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, at the entrance of the old terminal. Situated at the center of what was to become the new terminal headhouse, the statue had since become an active site of pilgrimage, regularly attracting crowds of visitors seeking to pay tribute to the historical icon. Relocating the statue was necessary for construction to move forward as planned, but this seemingly small task proved to be weighted with concerns from the statue’s sponsors and the public at large.

Construction work surrounds the statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the 17th-century king after whom the Mumbai airport is named. Photo courtesy of MIAL.

During this extended period of uncertainty, SOM came up with an inventive solution for literally working around the statue. Without the aid of cranes — which had been banned within a 557-meter radius around the statue to ensure the safety of visitors — the terminal’s distinctive mega-columns doubled as hoist mechanisms to erect the roof structure. The roof was gradually constructed as two separate halves to be joined precisely where the statue sat. This unusual arrangement required a double balancing act: each independent portion of the structure had to be assembled with weights and counterweights. Finally, in 2011, the hallowed statue was removed and reinstated at its current site along the new elevated roadway approaching Terminal 2.

Inside the new terminal’s main ticketing hall. Photo by Robert Polidori, courtesy of MIAL.

When the new Terminal 2 opened, in 2014, the press, the city, travelers, and architects alike proclaimed the building to be a revelation — not only for airport design, but for the city of Mumbai. The airport is now equipped to handle more than 40 million passengers a year, placing it in the same league as the world’s busiest international hubs.

Terminal 2 now handles Mumbai’s growing passenger volumes, while delighting travelers in the process.